Dangerous Direction

by Kellyn Johnson

In her postmodernist, critical essay For the Etruscans, poet and theorist Rachel Blau DuPlessis seeks to define the ‘feminine aesthetic’:

“Female Aesthetic”: the production of formal, epistemological, and thematic strategies by members of the group Woman, strategies born in struggle with much of already existing culture, and over-determined by two elements of sexual difference—by women’s psychological experiences of gendered asymmetry and by women’s historical status in an (ambiguously) nonhegemonic group.[1]

I posit that her definition, meant to work within literary theory, also provides a critical framework for the work of women in other creative processes. As Maggie Humm emphasizes, “feminist aesthetics focuses on women’s social subjectivity, not simply on visual imagery, and feminist art aims to transform the asocial, sexist values of traditional aesthetic.”[2] In particular, I believe that the work of women directors in theatre and film both physicalize Duplessis’s definition and fulfill Humm’s directive, reflecting women’s psychological, political, and physical experience as Other in a largely patriarchal system.

While much critical work has been done regarding the work of actresses and women playwrights, there exists an overwhelming lack of critical theory regarding the work of women theatrical directors. Women filmmakers receive slightly more attention in the work of E. Ann Kaplan, Mary Hurd and Barbara Quart, but aside from largely biographical projects such as Anne Fliotsos and Wendy Vierow’s impressive American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century, women directors as a group remain largely unexamined.

The director stands responsible for the final product of a performance. The production reflects both their interpretation and way of seeing.  As such, the director literally directs the gaze of an audience to see what—and as—they themselves see. The director cannot completely control a gaze: as we live in a patriarchal society, the Male Gaze becomes the standard by which we learn to view.  Coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1978 essay “Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema,” she defines the male gaze as a scopophilic and fetishistic perspective utilized by film directors and adopted by cinematic audiences, which supports and even bolsters hegemonic gender definitions. As spectators, we have learned to read performance through the male gaze, been conditioned to its rules and expectations, thus simultaneously causing and revealing its primacy.

The woman director therefore proves problematic. The woman director, seemingly a living contradiction, must therefore find a means of usurping the position and positing herself in the masculine sphere. The difficulty of such a move explains the slow growth in the number of women directors, for they must face the stigma of being “unfeminine,” a cardinal social sin. Yet here exists a separate problem, for once defining herself as a director, how will she perform her job? If she adopts the dominant male gaze, she participates in her own domination and disempowerment. If she works from the perspective of Woman, of Other, she undermines both social values and artistic expectation.

For a woman to be a director is a direct attack upon the hegemony; a rebellion against prescripted notions of femininity. One cannot rebel against and simultaneously support a system; thus, it follows, there must exist a separation in the directing style of the two genders. Please understand that as I engage in my analysis of these styles I am not engaging in value comparisons, do not intend to essentialize, nor do I posit that all directors follow the stylistic tendencies assigned to their gender—only that these tendencies apply to the majority of directors from a particular gender reflecting their gendered experience.

Male directors primarily utilize an external perspective in presenting their pieces. This method allows for the frame to function as an omniscient narrator, presenting a complete picture focused from the outside. In theatre, directors often use the proscenium arch as their framing device in effect portraitizing their image, reducing it to two dimensions contained within the frame and thus rendering it static. The reliance upon the frame allows the director to stay in constant control, reassuring his audience that he is in direct command as they never go without seeing.[3] Further, the director maintains realistic division of time and space, primarily producing linear and sequential narratives.

Harold Prince’s canonical production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1986 and continues to run both in London and New York (where it holds the title of the longest running Broadway production in history) provides a prime and readily accessibly example of the masculine style of direction.[4] The musical obsesses over issues of visibility, control, and containment following the magical terror of the elusive Phantom who lives in the vaults of the Paris Opera House. It uses the theatrical architecture of the literal theatre building to create lavish “onstage” scenes which invert into the gritty backstage and finally the mystical below-stage, all carefully structured to maintain the division between performer and spectator. As such, the audience enjoys an omniscient perspective with complete access to the play’s world. Further, it utilizes singular dominant images and a linear and sequential structure aided by Prince’s excessive use of reveals (via lights, mist, curtains, masks, and more).  The complete Masculinization of the production demands the audience accept the Male Gaze as their means of viewing to enjoy the spectacle.

The female protagonist, Christine Daeé is an absolute feminine “ideal.” She is young, beautiful, docile, and curious (but only a little). Her father has recently died, his absence leaving her longing for a male figure to guide and protect her. His tales of the “angel of music” fill her mind and leave her ready for a mystical intervention, emotions upon which the Phantom capitalizes.  Both the Phantom and Raoul, our hero, vie for her “love and adoration;” however, their motives can be more aptly defined as the right to display and control her. This can be most succinctly witnessed at the end of “Music of the Night” in which the Phantom unveils a giant gilded frame: a mannequin of Christine in a wedding dress pops out at Christine, causing her to faint. His ideal is an entrapped Christine, framed as a piece of art not a person, explaining his use of a master/student relationship to seduce her. He wishes to dominate, indoctrinate, and re-create her as his ultimate masterpiece; he is not interested in the semi-talented daughter of a famous violinist but of a musical miracle who can be his face to the world.

The Phantom seduces Christine through “magic,” introducing himself as the voice of the angel of music who will train her to be a star. After her first performance onstage at the Paris Opera House, due to the diva Carlotta’s refusal to perform as a result of the Phantom’s tricks, he entrances her, beckoning her into his world, the entrance of which is literally a frame. As she stares at herself in her dressing room mirror, the angle of which allows the audience to gaze at her both in body and reflection, she is suddenly replaced by a masked male figure who urges her to step through the looking glass and into the abyss of mist. The Phantom’s world is one of constantly shifting frames recalling his desire to escape display while simultaneously forcing others to be displayed. The asymmetry of his mask works in opposition to the overarching symmetry of the production and his lair. In her journey Christine is flanked by candelabras and outlined by mist, the white of her dressing gown reflecting the blue light so that she emerges ethereal and radiant. There can be no focus other than her, and the audience too becomes a contender in her framing.

Through the acceptance of the male gaze, the audience participates in the objectification of Christine performed by Raoul and the Phantom. She is an actress, an inviter of the gaze, and an object of desire. Her beauty is the source of much of her success, yet her would-be lover Raoul is threatened by that openness. He wants her to wear her engagement ring to signify that she belongs to him, the primary fight of their argument occurring flanked between the massive banisters of the grand staircase during the ‘Masquerade’ sequence. Yet the dispute is interrupted by the appearance of the Phantom in a death mask bearing the score for his masterpiece, Don Juan, in which he demands Christine Star.

During the performance of Don Juan, they “pass the point of no return” and the Phantom kidnaps Christine to his lair followed closely by Raoul.  The Phantom dresses Christine in the wedding gown seen earlier upon the mannequin whom he violently discards now that he can possess the real Christine. Upon Raoul’s attempted heroism and subsequent capture, Christine must choose whether he lives or dies. If she agrees to stay with the Phantom, he will let Raoul live, if not, Raoul dies. Raoul stands, chained to a grate while Christine, in white as usual, waivers, attempting to choose between the recommended courses of action by each man. Raoul offers his life for her happiness, the Phantom recalls their love. They stand to either side of her, physically framing her, aided by the use of a large white spotlight upon her. Ultimately, she chooses the Phantom, kissing him, succumbing to the seduction despite protestations of hatred, and, ironically, for this he “frees” her.

Christine is no more in control of the situation at the end than she was in the beginning. She is an object over which the men can wrestle, yet it ultimately is a fight for male dominance between the grotesque and classical body, the poor and the rich, and the brilliant versus the handsome. In relinquishing Christine, the Phantom accepts his social status, confined to the bowels of the opera house. She is traded, a commodity, and a standard of male wealth, and via the use of the gaze the audience becomes complacent with this transaction, yet never aware of their complacency, so total is the effect of the gaze.

Many women directors prefer to offer a different invitation. Like women playwrights, women directors tend to break the continuity of time and space, often engaging in collapsing, overlapping and reversing the qualities. Further, rather than adopt the external perspective, they prefer the internal, flipping between characters’ perspectives and the external as a means of translating between mind and body. They look through the eyes of their characters, offering unstable and biased narratives frequently interested more in what can’t be seen than what can. Onstage, women tend to work in alternative theatrical arrangements to the proscenium; yet within the proscenium they become less concerned with two dimensional display and sightlines and more with the possibilities of multiple perspectives.

Often, this results in a blurring of the division between spectator and performer, meta-theatrically challenging the artifice of both theatre and “real” life. From their position as “Other” women directors challenge the validity of the Master Narrative by presenting art which is not all-seeing, all-knowing, or all-controlled. The image is seemingly dependent upon the character and what they choose to see rather than the effect of a puppet master. Their own lack of control in society translates onto the stage as they immerse the audience in powerlessness, unafraid of the chaos of multiple perspectives as they emphasize the personal as a reflection of the political.

Maria Aitken’s production of The 39 Steps, for which she received a Best Director Tony nomination, embodies the aesthetic I describe. The Hitchcock-ian farce, which simultaneously pays homage to and deconstructs the work of the ‘Master of Suspense’ functions through meta-theatricality, Brechtian Alienation, extreme stylization, and non-linearity. The play, an adaptation of the film The 39 Steps, follows the story of Richard Hannay, a bored English aristocrat who, through the wiles of a Russian femme fatale, becomes entangled in a web of spy games concerning the secret of the 39 Steps, which, if revealed, could threaten national security. Hilarity ensues as Aitken’s direction reveals the absurdity of the plot, the histrionics of the genre, and the sexual power dynamics upon which both Hitchcock the master and, by extension, narrative drama depends.

Aitken utilizes a highly stylized, artificial aesthetic in the play which calls attention to theatrical artifice, the effort of acting, and the contrived relationship of performer and spectator. The small cast of four portrays nearly sixty characters, primarily through the work of Man#1 and Man#2 who take on the majority of the roles. Their acrobatic costume changes and accompanying character switches occur with such exquisite timing that they could easily become a seamless production feat. Yet, in an effort to expose the mechanics of mastery, the actors themselves draw attention to their switches through gesture, heavy breathing, and direct expressions to the audience which seems to say “Did you see that?” For their efforts, the audience applauds their more elaborate and difficult switches as they might a circus act or magician, appreciating the obvious skill behind the magic.  The effect reaches a climax at the end of the play when Man#2 performs a scene, as two separate characters, with himself while the actors portraying Hannay and his blond love interest, Pamela, watch in amusement and incredulity. The moment reinforces the direct address used throughout the production which constantly reminds the spectator that they are watching a play, and further that they themselves are an active participant in the spectacle.

From the beginning of the play, Hannay speaks to the audience directly, including them in his schemes and psyche, flirting with them, investing them with character qualities. The lights never fully dim, allowing for the barrier between stage and spectator to remain fluid. Several key scenes take place in a theatre, assisting with this fluidity, as the spectators watching The 39 Steps become the audience for Mr. Memory, performed by Man #1, who can recall any fact on cue. They ask the audience for suggestions, and the careful polishing of the production leads me to wonder if they have been prepared with a plan if any brave audience member actually did speak up. The actors take their time looking into the audience for a participant, creating escalating tension among the audience who must confront their assumption that their role includes both passivity and anonymity. In moments the audience has had to examine their own function within theatrical performance, been made an active participant within the spectacle, and discarded their expectations for the theatrical event.

This moment, which is repeated in act two, destroys the illusion of a controlled narrative and production, presents the possibility of an altered course. Combined with the stylization, direct address, and audience inclusion the meta-theatricality goes so far as to destabilize theatrical formula. As the play draws to a close, the actors/characters begin rewriting their stories, surprising the other characters as they each seek the ending their character desires. Just as it seems the villain will triumph, a mysterious hand appears between the curtains and shoots him. As he falls the remaining three actors look at each other and count the bodies, unable to explain the mysterious intrusion of a 5th member, and shrug. The rules of the play have changed even as the ending is in sight, and as such no one, audience or actor, can be omniscient.

The issue of omniscience and visibility repeatedly appears in the performance. When the sexy femme fatale Annabella Schmidt explains to Hannay that she is being followed by two men who aim to kill her, she gestures out of his parlor window to indicate their position. Rather than asking the audience to accept the validity of Hannay’s perspective, Aitken has the men run downstage in trench coats, carrying a lamppost, and pose like stereotypical noir spies. Aitken ensures that the audience sees as the character sees, and in order to reinforce this controlled vision, the men repeat the gag three times. Not only does the bit draw attention to issues of visibility, but by simulating the jump cut she challenges omniscience as the scene appears in front of the Annabella-Hannay scene, collapsing time and space to create an unstable perspective and narrative.

Yet Aitken then challenges these moments of hyper-visibility with unseen scenes. Critical moments occur offstage, in near darkness, and through the use of shadow puppets which replace the actors’ bodies. These scenes displace the action form the stage proper and often occur during moments of homage which mock Hitchcock’s most classic scenes, the crop duster chasing Cary Grant in North by Northwest, the Mission steps in Vertigo, and the descent of the birds in The Birds, to name a few.  In Aitken’s production, these moments lose the dramatic suspense which makes them famous, and through deconstruction appear trivial, superficial, and mechanical. Aitken thus uses humor to debunk the master, reflecting a gendered way of seeing outside the dominant male perspective which would limit her to the role of sexual object to enhance the image and ego of the leading man.

Indeed, the roles of the spy Anabella, Margaret, the lonely young Scottish wife with the cranky old husband, and the blonde love interest Pamela—all played by the same actress—each confront their traditional position as sexual object of adornment for the hero. All of the women fall for Hannay, literally throwing themselves at him, yet they over perform their adoration exposing the absurdity of their position. They love Hannay without knowing anything about him, and he in turn asks nothing about them, ensuring that his interest remains solely sexual and without emotional attachment. Yet the women remain true to him despite the shallowness of their relationship. They trust him, protect him, and aid him in his adventure.

Pamela provides the possibility of an alternative female narrative as she repeatedly tries to turn Hannay into the authorities who believe him responsible for the shooting of Annabella Schmidt. Yet her actions seem more in retaliation for his kissing her on the train during his flight, threatening her virtue, than any sense of civic or moral obligation. Further, after she has been handcuffed to Hannay and dragged alongside him, she discovers she can slip her hand out of the cuffs. However, despite her newfound freedom, she remains with Hannay, unable to leave him. They maintain a relationship based upon sexual tension and traditional gender roles as she follows Hannay, waits (unsuccessfully) for him to kiss her, and leaves without ever admitting her feelings. In the over-contrived ending, they reappear married, and Hannay kisses her in the style of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, as snow falls over the actors and the audience. The frustration created by their story highlights Aitken’s frustration with the expectations traditionally assigned to women and through the stylized performance, latent with sexual innuendo and influenced farce, exposes the absurdity, unfairness, and impossibility of such expectations.

Aitken’s production has very little to do with the story or themes of the original 39 Steps, but instead concerns itself with the politics and process of production.  The plot of the piece becomes irrelevant, which the anarchical ending confirms, in favor of an exploration of the theatrical experience for both performer and spectator, ultimately demanding a redefining for both.  Aitken challenges her audience, removing them from the comfortable position of passive spectator, and includes them in the performance.  Their inclusion forces the actors to acknowledge their audience, to work with their audience versus performing for or before them. Their reciprocal claps during the curtain call seem, unlike most, to be genuine. The play is an incredible success, not only due to its high ticket sales and satisfied audiences, but because it confirms the possibility that the work of women directors can be commercially successful and satisfying while maintaining an inherently feminist perspective.

The difference in direction strategies exhibited between men and women reveal an innate tension with the master-form. The key to the struggle lies in the analysis of their differing uses of perspective and how that use translates between stage and screen, for the perspective utilized by a director ultimately reveals how they see their world. Women directors consistently strive to highlight their entrapment within their “otherness.” They seem to be rebelling against a format which demands fetishization and subordination, mirroring the social schema of which these women directors themselves have broken from as they seek to be instruments of control, vehicles of a new perspective.

Over the course of this study I have evaluated the different means of structuring and producing theatre as a result of the director’s gender. The male singular perspective derives from his position of phallic power, the world is constructed to appeal to the Male Gaze and therefore those aligning with ‘masculinity’ do not require perspective shift. Their control of the world manifests itself in their art which in turn is controlled, external, and singular in perspective

Women’s position as an outsider to the hegemony, an ‘Other,’ demands that they engage in a perspective shift to view through the male gaze as they do not approach media from a position of privilege and power. While I will not delve too deeply in to the process of this switch, its existence explains the use of multiple perspectives and meta-theatricality as these processes parallel their gendered experience of seeing. Combined with biased, unstable and non-omniscient narratives they force their audiences to adopt the position of woman, as they so frequently must adopt the position of man. This can cause fear and discomfort, terror at the thought of willingly losing one’s equilibrium, of dismantling the black and white of “Truth” in favor of the greys of truths, yet it will not bring about a fall from grace or unleash disease and death upon the world. When we open the box, we find truth through knowledge; a weapon yes, but a weapon which can be wielded wisely. ▢

Kellyn Johnson is a Regents Special Fellow in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of California, Santa Barbara with a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies. Her research examines the definition, processes, and aesthetics of feminist directors and explores their relationship to the activist potential of theatrical practice.


[1] Rachel Blau DuPlessis “For the Etruscans” in The New Feminist Criticism, ed Elaine Showalter. (NY: Pantheon, 1985) , 275

[2] Maggie Humm. Feminism and Film.(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 10-11

[3] Except occasionally in Horror Films when it is the anticipation of the unseen on which the drama depends, yet what is in the frame most frequently becomes fetishized and eroticized before reduced to violence

[4] The Phantom of the Opera, by Andrew Lloyd Weber, dir Hal Prince, Majestic  Theatre, NY: New York, 25 December 2003.

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